Eating disorder rates four times higher in girls than boys, survey shows

Four times as many girls as boys have a probable eating disorder, a survey has shown (PA)
Four times as many girls as boys have a probable eating disorder, a survey has shown (PA) Four times as many girls as boys have a probable eating disorder, a survey has shown (PA)

More than one in 10 of 17 to 19-year-olds in England who took part in a major survey this year had an eating disorder, a rise from less than 1% of that age group six years ago.

Among younger people – those aged 11 to 16 – rates of eating disorders were four times higher in girls than boys, according to the Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2023 report, published by NHS England.

Overall, a fifth (20.3%) of eight to 16-year-olds had a probable mental disorder, the findings showed.

This rose to almost a quarter (23.3%) among 17 to 19-year-olds, while it was 21.7% among 20 to 25-year-olds.

After a rise in rates of probable mental disorders between 2017 and 2020, prevalence continued at similar levels in all age groups between 2022 and 2023, NHS England said.

But the Children’s Society said the rates remain “unacceptably high”, while NHS Providers, which represents trusts, called for an “urgent cross-government action to get a grip on a persistent crisis”.

The report saw information collected during February to April this year, covering 2,370 children and young people aged eight to 25 years old in England.

NHS England said responses from parents, children and young people were used to estimate whether it was “unlikely”, “possible” or “probable” that a child might have a mental disorder.

The survey, carried out by the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), and the universities of Cambridge and Exeter, is described by NHS England as the country’s best data source for trends in children and young people’s mental health and how these have changed since 2017.

People who took part were questioned about eating disorders for the first time since the 2017 survey, and the findings showed that 12.5% of 17 to 19-year-olds had an eating disorder as of this year, up from 0.8% in 2017.

Since 2017, eating disorder rates rose both in young women (from 1.6% to 20.8%) and young men (from 0.0% to 5.1%) in this age group.

Eating disorders were identified in 2.6% of 11 to 16-year-olds, NHS England said, which was up from 0.5% in 2017.

Rates in 2023 in that age group were four times higher in girls (4.3%) than boys (1.0%).

NHS mental health director, Claire Murdoch, said the report showed the “continued unprecedented pressures faced by young people and reflects the increased demand for NHS children’s mental health services”.

She said the health service has supported more than 700,000 children and young people with their mental health so far this year, and noted a 47% increase in young people being treated for eating disorders compared to pre-pandemic.

NHS England said 398 mental health support teams have already been rolled out within schools and colleges to provide early support to young people with mild to moderate mental health issues, while a further 200 teams are in training and expected to be working by spring 2025, with the aim of covering over half of the country’s pupils and learners.

Amy Dicks, from The Children’s Society, said the availability of support in schools “is still subject to a postcode lottery” as she urged the Government to “commit to a full rollout of mental health support teams so no child is without the help they need”.

Mark Winstanley, chief executive of the Rethink Mental Illness charity, said the “stark statistics” showed a “generation of children and young people whose mental health has suffered the twin-blow of a global pandemic and a cost-of-living crisis, without appropriate support to help them weather the storms”.

He branded the “vertiginous rise in eating disorders over the past six years” as “particularly alarming”, and lamented “underfunding and workforce issues” of child and adolescent mental health services.

Tom Quinn, from eating disorder charity Beat, said the statistics show the “devastating scale of eating disorders in children and young people in England”.

He added: “Eating disorders are often thought to be rare mental illnesses, but this new data clearly shows that they are far more common than most people realise.

“Now is the time for support for those affected – including adults – to be placed at the forefront of mental health policy, and most urgently, prioritised for dedicated funding.”

He said while the findings have provided “vital evidence for England”, the situation across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland “is still unclear” and called for a “concerted research effort in all four nations in order to ensure that wherever you are in the UK, you will receive the very best care”.

Saffron Cordery, deputy chief executive, NHS Providers, said: “Far too many youngsters are stuck in the queue for diagnosis and the right support.

“We need urgent cross-government action to get a grip on a persistent crisis. Without it many more children and young people, their families and carers will continue to suffer long waits for support.”